As young teens, my friends and I used to always get into R movies. When my local theatre finally decided to enforce the guidelines set by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its Rating Board, I ended up making a fake birth certificate that showed I was of “legal” age to see R movies. (The theatre dropped the policy before I got a chance to use it, however. I guess it lost a lot of money.) That was the first and only time the ratings directly affected me. Sure, I had been reading a lot about them in “Fangoria,” so I knew what they were about and why they were in place (to a “Fangoria” reader it seemed like they only existed to annoy the hell out of horror movie directors), but until that one incident they never really had any kind of affect on my life. Now as a parent, the MPAA seems to think I should be grateful the ratings exist. In a move that could get this column a PG-13, I have to say that is some motherfucking bullshit.

Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA until September 1 (when he retires and is replaced by Dan Glickman), has an interesting essay on the Organization’s Internet site (www.mpaa.org). He gives a brief explanation of how he became the head of the group and explains how it fits into the average American’s life. Before I go on with his essay, let me explain that I think self-imposed ratings, which occur in everything from movies to music to comic books, are much better than government-enforced ratings, which is what all those industries were looking at if they didn’t “clean up” their acts. That said, ratings are still a tool for the idiot, and I think they should be abolished or the system drastically changed.

When Valenti took over as head of the MPAA in 1966, he wrote that Hollywood studios were losing “authority over the content of films,” which “collided with an avalanching revision of American mores and customs.” It’s a fancy way of saying that the times they were a-changin’ and directors were changing with them, much to the regret of their bosses.

This brave new world of movies caused Valenti some problems within weeks of his new position. The film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” used the word “screw” and the odd phrase “hump the hostess,” which were firsts for American movies. After much hand wrangling, Valenti and company, including Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner, decided to delete “screw” from the film and keep “hump the hostess.” Valenti was “uneasy” over the meeting, writing that it “seemed wrong that grown men should be sitting around discussing such matters.” He also was “uncomfortable” with the idea that this was “just the beginning of an unsettling new era in film, in which we would lurch from crisis to crisis, without any suitable solution in sight.”

Valenti, whom I’m sure loves movies and thinks he is doing the right thing, met with more problems over the content of motion pictures, but then he and the National Association of Theatre Owners came up with a “revolutionary approach to how they would fulfill their obligation to the parents of America.” In 1968 they “announced the birth of a new voluntary film rating system of the motion picture industry.” The Hays Office’s Production Code, the forerunner to our current rating system, was no longer valid in this era where America’s “national scene was marked by insurrection on the campus, riots in the streets, rise in women’s liberation, protest of the young, doubts about the institution of marriage, abandonment of old guiding slogans, and the crumblings of social traditions.” It was obvious to Valenti that America was in a nightmare that only Wes Craven could devise, and the ratings system was his little way of making things better.

The system, according to Valenti, has one basic mission. It is there to offer parents “advance information about movies so that they can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see.” Ratings, says Valenti, are “meant for parents, no one else.” If parents don’t give a crap, however, “the ratings system becomes useless.”

The Rating Board, which decides on the rating a film receives, is a secretive group whose qualifications are “a shared parenthood experience,” “intelligent maturity” and the ability to put themselves “in the role of most American parents so they can view a film and apply a rating that most parents would find suitable and helpful in aiding their decisions about their children’s moviegoing.” It does not ”rate movies on their quality or lack of quality.” The criteria it uses involve “theme, violence, language, nudity, sensuality, drug abuse and other elements.” Submitting a film to the Board is voluntary, too, and Valenti forces no one to do it. Filmmakers even have a chance to appeal a rating if they think it is incorrect.

It all sounds fairly benign. Hell, a film doesn’t even have to go before the Rating Board, and a studio can release a film without a rating if it so decides, so what is the problem? Why do I think the ratings are a waste of time, effort and money? (It costs to have films rated.) Simple: Most parents are jackasses.

Valenti’s Rating Board is made up of a Joe and Jane 2.5 Children. They watch the submitted films and slap a rating on them according to what they think other parents will think. There’s no mention of special schooling or art appreciation for these viewers. It’s all about what’s good for the parents. They provide advance information and nothing else, right? They don’t dictate policy to studios or newspapers, right? They don’t physically restrain people from seeing the films, either, right? They just give their opinion on the film you may want to see — if you’re a parent or not. There are some very definite problems with that.

First of all, how do you trust a group a like that? How does any rational person put any weight into that group’s decision without knowing anything about the people who sit on the Board? I’d even go so far as to say that most people who look at the ratings don’t even know the qualifications (what little they are) for those who rate them. I imagine they think it’s trained professionals or even the government. An informal poll I took — among people who love movies, no less — even backs that up. A lot of people think these are film professionals, not Bob and Jane from next door. Not the smiling couple who have the mini-van and pink flamingos in their yard. Nope. They

Would’ve never guessed, and when I told them who they were and what the qualifications were, they were overwhelmingly stunned.

This lack of understanding has led to a pretty strange situation. The Rating Board’s decisions are given more weight than just “advance information.” They are taken to be the be-all- end-all as far as movies go. Try seeing advertising for a film that hasn’t been submitted to the board or that is released without a rating after failing to get the desired letter. You’ll see some for films that “have not yet been rated,” but when’s the last time you saw any for a film that failed the test or never went for it? It used to be that some newspapers wouldn’t even carry ads for those films. If that has changed in anywhere but big cities, I don’t know about it.

Then there is the problem with enforcing the ratings. I’m not going to restrict my daughter from viewing any movie she thinks she may want to see. My parents didn’t care that I saw R rated films without them, and I’ll most likely be the same way. That said, many theatres have policies that follow the Rating Board’s recommendations despite a parent’s wishes. (To be honest, it can be arranged with a video store to let a child under 17 rent a movie that is rated R, and I believe many teens sneak into R movies, but the policy is in place.) So the film ratings that are supposed to be advance information for parents are actually used to restrict viewing and advertising. It’s just a rating, right? Wrong. It’s a rating that carries far too much weight for what it is, and I stand by my statement that it needs to either be abolished all together or that something needs to be changed, and here is how.

There are reasons the Board members’ identities aren’t known. I don’t have a problem with that, but there should be a list of the members by number or letter (Member A, and so on) with a list of their past jobs, their education, a personal mission statement, any film experience or classes, and — just for kicks — their favorite types of movies. There should also be a blurb about their parenthood status and religious affiliation. Why? Because some of the criteria used for rating a movie is subjective (e.g., violence and theme), so I want to know about the people working within that criteria so that I can determine exactly where they are coming from in terms of the opinions they form. Once we know more about these people, I suspect their ratings will have a lot less of an impact on things. Media outlets may be more prone to carry advertisements for movies that don’t submit themselves to such a clandestine group of mommies and daddies, and theatre owners and video stores may make less restrictive policies. For a group that wants to shed light on what a movie is, there sure is a hell of a lot of secrecy about the people who make the decisions, and that gives me a clear indication of the real problem with the MPAA’s Rating Board.

The Rating Board thinks it is doing a good thing, and its importance has obviously gotten to its collective head. If it isn’t willing to either totally abandon the rating system (making parents do more homework before taking their kids to a movie), or at least reveal some telling information about the people on the Board (like letting people know if one of the folks in charge of rating, say “House of 1,000 Corpses,” is a 42 year-old, career grocery store manager, Christian mother whose favorite movie is “anything with Shirley Temple” and who has never taken a film class), then it is obvious to me that it knows how little its opinions really matter. The Rating Board wears no clothes, but the MPAA doesn’t want anyone to know that. “Pay no attention to the little man behind the mirror,” it says.

So, Mr. Valenti (and Mr. Glickman), here’s my challenge to you: Abolish the ratings or make public information on those who rate the movies. I’m not saying reveal their names or where they live. I just want the facts I’ve outlined above, and I want the MPAA to run them before every movie. I’d also like the MPAA to encourage newspapers to run them with the film reviews. As a parent, I want to know who is looking out for my best interests. I want to know what qualifies them to do such a thing, and I want the people who enforce these arbitrary ratings to know who is behind them, too. If the goal of the Rating Board is to provide advance information to parents, shouldn’t it be of the utmost importance for those parents to know the backgrounds of these decision makers — especially since much of the criteria is based on nothing more than opinion? Are you up to my challenge, or do you think people will finally come to the same realization I did many years ago? You know: The ratings are nothing more than B.S. pushed by an organization whose importance is vastly overrated by people who don’t know any better. Will you continue to thrive off people’s ignorance, or will you give parents the tools they really need to understand the ratings and from where they emanate?

I believe I know the answer, but I hope you surprise me. You care about movies as much as I, so let’s make the film experience a better one overall. Let’s help educate moviegoers about the people who rate the films, and let’s encourage parents to take an active role in what their children view. Let’s stop this farce before it does any more damage.

You game?

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Posted on August 5, 2004 in Features by

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